It was every kid’s rock and roll dream. Three college buddies – Chad Stokes, Brad Corrigan and Pete Francis – get together in a band (Dispatch) and start playing locally while in school and watch as it takes off. Soon they’re playing gigs all over the U.S. in sold out venues. Songs are being downloaded and shared from friend to friend and advance marketing work is done via the Internet without them having to do anything. Their self-released albums walk off the shelves and when the big labels come sniffing around, they can tell them to get stuffed, and that they aren’t needed. Yet, even a dream can become tired, and for three young men who hadn’t fully lived out their lives yet, and had the brains to know there was more to life than playing music with two other guys, they pulled the plug before it all went sour. While fundraising concerts brought them back together occasionally they managed to resist the urge to reunite on a more permanent basis.
That all changed in 2011 with Dispatch reuniting for a sold-out tour of the U.S. Now, 2012 sees the release of the first full length Dispatch album of entirely new material in 12 years with Circles Around the Sun being released on their own Bomber label. Yep, they’re back & ndash; the three college kids who turned the music industry on its head by encouraging their band’s fans to file share their songs in order to spread the word. They are also the band who sold out not one but three shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City in hours to raise money for Zimbabwe in 2007 and an acoustic show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. two years latter in less then two minutes.
Stokes, Corrigan and Francis – who trade off on guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and a mean banjo on the new disc – have gone out in the world as individuals and returned with something a lot more mature than the youthful exuberance and intelligence which were the earmarks of the band in the early years. So anyone expecting this to sound just like the music the band was playing a decade ago will be in for a surprise. Oh, some of the same elements are still there. It’s still the same three guys after all. The harmonies are so seamless and the playing so tight that they still sound like they’re completing each other’s sentences musically. But the music isn’t as raw or gritty and the writing is far more sophisticated. What they’ve each learned working on their own has been brought back to the trio and distilled down into a collection of songs reflecting their collective experiences.
What I had appreciated about Dispatch originally was how much they differed from what I had come to expect from pop trios. Normally this configuration conjures up images of bass, guitar and drums churning their way through assorted power chords with amplifiers turned up to 11, compensating for lack of numbers with noise. Concerts would be more of the same except songs would be excruciatingly extended by endless solos. Dispatch always seemed more focused on making each song greater than the sum of their parts, resulting in a diversity of sound most bands, let alone a trio, would be hard pressed to match. With Circles Around the Sun, they not only continue on in that vein but have pushed themselves even further.
Right from the first song on the disc, title track “Circles Around the Sun”, they start to take risks. Initially it sounds like fairly typical power pop song, opening with a cutting guitar lead and continuing on from there as a moderately fast, if much more melodic than normal, rock song. However, at about the half way point of the song, they start to change it up.
First of all, instead of what would under most circumstances be a break for a solo by one or more instruments, they have a three-part harmony vocal break. What this does is serve as a both a musical and a thematic change of pace. A child born with a freak medical condition rendering him weightless had been taken from his mother: “Oh let’s send him where no one else has gone/After all he cannot speak or walk/Let’s send him at the moon/Do circles ’round the sun”.
Until the break, we expect the tune to be about the callousness of government and exploitation. However, the first verse after is completely different in tone and form from anything preceding it: “He came back with a smile as big as the whole world/The doctors were shocked by his vital signs/She said,’Would you like to go home now?'”. With just this simple break, the song changes from being just another obvious tune about heartless governments to something a little more complex. Sure, they’ll do their best to exploit us when they can, but that doesn’t mean we have to surrender hope. While the song reverts back to its original theme for a final refrain of “Oh let’s send him where no one else has gone”, the break and subsequent verse have done their job in subverting the notion of governments being all powerful and able to get their way in everything.
As the disc progresses, you’ll notice the band isn’t willing to let themselves be easily defined musically anymore. For while “Not Messin'”, track two, is a hard-edged rap song about the strange values being preached according to the gospel of money and material wealth, “Get Ready Boy”, following immediately after, is a wistful song about freedom with a distinct bluegrass feel to it. Yet in spite of the changes in style that occur throughout the disc, there is still a sense of cohesion to the album as a whole. For one thing it never feels like the band is doing something different solely for the sake of being different. No matter the approach taken, it never sounds forced. Each song on the disc feels like the lyrics and music are organic extensions of each other and took their particular form because it was best suited to expressing the thoughts and emotions specific to the tune.
In the 1990s, Dispatch were the quintessential independent college band. They took the industry by storm by taking advantage of file sharing and the burgeoning Internet social networks to publicize their material and promote their concert appearances. Their music was fresh, positive and fun and they tapped into young people’s need to feel like they could make a difference in a world which seemed indifferent to their concerns. Now, 12 years since the release of their last studio album, they’re back.
While they remain as fiercely independent as they were originally and have lost none of the joie de vivre that made them so appealing, they’ve grown both as musicians and human beings in the interim. The result is an album of material emotionally and intellectually maturer then anything they previously released, retaining the enthusiasm for life and music that distinguished them in the past.
If you liked Dispatch before, you’ll love them now. If this is your first time listening to them, you’re in for a treat. There still isn’t another band quite like Dispatch, and you’ll not hear another album quite like Circles Around the Sun.